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Why is the book 'Gender Queer' being removed from public school libraries, and is it 'obscene?'


The book "Gender Queer: A Memoir" has been called "heartfelt" and "valuable." South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster calls some of its images "obscene." He asked South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman last week to conduct an investigation of how the book ended up in public school libraries. He said "Gender Queer" contains sexually explicit and pornographic depictions, which "easily meet or exceed the statutory definition of obscenity."

WFAE’s Lisa Worf joins WFAE's "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn to discuss the claim.

Gwendolyn Glenn: So, Lisa, first, how did this book come to the attention of Gov. McMaster?

Lisa Worf: In his letter to Spearman, he says he heard about it through concerned parents in Fort Mill. The book by Maia Kobabe was available in the libraries of three high schools there. It’s a graphic novel that tells the author’s story of growing up nonbinary — meaning someone who doesn’t identify as exclusively male or female, or someone who doesn’t identify with either gender.

Parents and politicians in several states have been asking school libraries to pull this book, citing a couple images — one showing the adult author in a sex act with an adult romantic partner, the other is what appears to be a teenage youth about to engage in a sex act with a bearded man, with an allusion to Plato’s Symposium.

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson pointed to "Gender Queer" as an example of what he called "filth" in public schools.

Mark Robinson: The idea that our children should be taught about transgenderism and be exposed to sexually explicit material in the classroom is abhorrent.

Worf: Now, the book is in some high school libraries in North Carolina and South Carolina, but there’s no indication it’s being taught in the classroom. You won’t find it in Fort Mills schools anymore. After an administrative review, the district found this week the book included images that are not "age appropriate" for students.

Glenn: So, back to McMaster. He said some images in Gender Queer meet or exceed the statutory definition of obscenity. Is that the case? 

Worf: I put that question to a couple law professors specializing in constitutional law because this really is a First Amendment issue. This is what Thomas Crocker had to say.

Thomas Crocker: It almost negligently is wrong because any lawyer knows the definition of obscenity is this exceptionally high bar to meet. 

Worf: He’s a professor at University of South Carolina School of Law, the same law school McMaster received his law degree from.

Crocker: In general, they are not prosecuted very often because to meet the level of obscenity is a really, really high bar. 

Worf: What kinds things qualify as obscene?

Crocker: I mean, when I teach this in First Amendment it’s really difficult to come up with a work that actually qualifies that has no redeeming artistic, literary merit. You have got to imagine things that I can’t imagine.

Glenn: What is South Carolina’s statute around obscenity? 

Worf: Well, the work has to be judged as a whole to lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Mary-Rose Papandrea, a professor at UNC School of Law, says it matches word-for-word the standard the Supreme Court set for defining the category of speech called obscenity that falls outside the protections of the First Amendment.

Mary Rose Papandrea: My understanding is the book is a story about a nonbinary individual and that this would have clear literary, political, scientific, probably artistic value, as well. 

Worf: She says under the First Amendment and South Carolina law, there is extra leeway for materials deemed obscene for minors. But even under that standard, she says the book has value.

Glenn: Now, most of Gov. McMaster’s letter was asking the state superintendent to conduct an investigation of how "Gender Queer" ended up in public school libraries. But he also asks the head of South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to further evaluate the matter. How has the division responded? 

Worf: A division spokesperson said Chief Mark Keel is in receipt of the governor’s letter and is in the process of evaluating the circumstances — and that he’s been in touch with the Governor’s Office and the Superintendent of Education. I did ask whether the division is considering an investigation — but I didn’t hear back on that. I asked Papandrea what an investigation would entail.

Papandrea: It would not take very long. They would look at the book and they would look at the law and they would say this book is not obscene under South Carolina law.

Worf: Now, whether it has a place in public school libraries, she points out, is a different debate.

Glenn: Thanks, Lisa.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.
Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.